UK: Circuit leader tells barristers not to attend court today (24.3.20)

Legal Futures reports

The leader of the North Eastern Circuit has urged his members not to attend any court hearings today in the wake of the government’s decision last night to lock down the UK.

Richard Wright QC said his advice was backed by the senior presiding judge for the circuit, Mr Justice Goss.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the nation that among the few exceptions to the order to stay at home was “travelling to and from work, but only where this is absolutely necessary and cannot be done from home”.

In a message to circuiteers, Mr Wright wrote: “If you need to conduct a hearing [today], do so remotely.

“Only in truly exceptional circumstances would it ever be ‘essential’ to attend any type of hearing in person.”

In a message this morning, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) said that following contact with the senior presiding judge, Lady Justice Macur, the advice was now clear.

“Do not attend court unless you are in a part heard trial where your jury is either in retirement or about to go into retirement”. There are 34 trials at this stage across the country. No other in person hearings will go ahead.

The CBA said that for those appearing in the 34 cases, “if you consider that going to court would breach the Public Health England guidance, then do not attend and contact your judge directly.

“If you are attending in a part-heard trial and have concerns about safety, raise them at court with your judge. If you consider that it cannot conclude safely in accordance with PHE and government advice, then say so and feel confident to withdraw. We will support you.”

Separate Bar Council guidance said the judge would decide whether a part-heard trial would continue, “taking into account representations and the stage reached in the trial”.

Barristers should not attend the magistrates’ court in person unless it was an urgent case today, with the type of case listed in the guidance.

For the civil and family courts, it said, “you should not attend in person unless the hearing is genuinely urgent and it cannot be done remotely. Such a hearing will be a rare occurrence”.

All through Monday, complaints from criminal law specialists about them and other users having to attend court escalated, even after the Lord Chief Justice announced a “pause” in new jury trials while safety measures were considered.

Barrister Kaj Scarsbrook tweeted yesterday: “Taunton Crown Court, Court 2 – 21 defendants in the list. 8 or 9 counsel in court at any one time. Impossible to put into practice the government requirements. And the practical implications of small robing rooms, all using the same Xhibit computer to log in.”

A solicitor tweeted: “Business as usual at Stratford youth court. No guidance on what is ‘urgent’ means. No directive to adjourn bail cases. Parents and young people and advocates waiting outside court room. Not safe for anyone here.”

In an article for The Guardian, the Secret Barrister blasted the policy of keeping the criminal courts – which they described as a “petri dish” – open: “Over the past few days I have been flooded with messages from terrified jurors, witnesses and court staff aghast that, at a time when the government is frantically urging social distancing because ‘infections spread easily in closed spaces where people gather together’, they are being required by law to expose themselves to such conditions.”

Caroline Goodwin QC, chair of the CBA, stressed in her update to members yesterday that “we consider that if your hearing cannot be conducted with social distancing and hygiene measures in place, you would be perfectly entitled to take the view that you ought not attend or that you should leave in accordance with the LCJ’s guidance”.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court and Judicial Committee of the Privy Council announced last night that they would hear all cases and deliver judgments through video conferencing from today.

They are using the Cisco WebEx platform, “which has been chosen for its ease of use and reliability”.

There was also alarm on social media about a tweet by well-known regulatory barrister Marc Beaumont, who wrote: “Pupil barristers who do not want to risk their health are being compelled by clerks to go to court against their will for fear of not being kept on by sets of chambers as tenants. This exploitation has got to stop immediately. The Bar Council and BSB must issue a statement TODAY.”